An image of Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor: The Dark World

What Fool Flyts with Thor?

As I’ve discussed previously, flyting is a rich Northern European tradition of poetic insults, where antagonists use their ingenuity to come up with rhymed verses where they say disrespectful things to one another, and, in most cases, things escalate with each exchange.

You are correct to compare this in your head to battle-style rap, which differs primarily in its focus on performance and braggadocio, but is a relatively comparable modern phenomenon.

You are forgiven if you want to go ahead and check out a few episodes of Epic Rap Battles of History before proceeding.

The gods in Norse mythology aren’t actual people, and even as characters in stories, they aren’t to be taken too literally as people. They’re personifications of natural forces. So even when we talk about them in the context of particular poems, don’t forget that their original audiences saw them as something much bigger than just a person talking, or, in these sorts of stories, as a joke delivery device.

That said…

"Thor and Harbard" illustration by Franz Stassen in "Die Edda: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen" by Hans von Wolzogen, published in 1920.
“Thor and Harbard” illustration by Franz Stassen in “Die Edda: Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen” by Hans von Wolzogen, published in 1920.

Don’t you think it seems like a bad idea to get into an exchange of insults with Thor?

As I’ve discussed previously, Thor’s perfectly intelligent enough to hold his own in a battle of wits. He knows the lore, and has a few tricks up his sleeve. There aren’t stories where any giants pull any fast ones on Thor, even if he can be a little dense sometimes.

But Thor is famous for his anger. He can start entire wars with his temper, and when it comes to flyting in particular, we know from the tale of Lokasenna that when he arrives at Aegir’s hall to find Loki insulting basically every other god, he decides he’s had enough of Loki, and it’s time for Loki to end.

One character from Norse mythology intentionally insults Thor, fully knowing the potential consequences, and without being on whatever suicide mission Loki is on in Lokasenna. A harbormaster, seemingly a simple man, who Thor asks to ferry his boat across a sound and then ferry Thor himself across that sound, in exchange for food.

The harbormaster immediately insults Thor, and goes on a long string of insults, and turns even his victories on their head, telling Thor that even when he defeats giants he is hardly accomplishing anything. The harbormaster seems to have the advantage of a body of water between himself and Thor, but of course Thor famously went out into the depths of the ocean to track down the Midgard Serpent, so no body of water should be considered safe where Thor’s vengeance is concerned.

The harbormaster survives the poem. Why? Perhaps, as the careful reader will discern, Thor realizes his antagonist is Odin in disguise – the only being in all of existence who could so openly insult Thor and expect to live. Perhaps Thor enjoyed the exchange itself.

Or perhaps Thor saved his vengeance for another day, and Odin got his payback in a poem that didn’t survive. At any rate, it’s fun to see Thor getting angry without getting violent. Who knew he had the restraint!?

Hárbarðsljóð

From the Bellows translation

Thor was on his way back from a journey in the East, and came to a sound; on the other side of the sound was a ferryman with a boat. Thor called out:

[1] “Who is the fellow yonder, | on the farther shore of the sound?”

The ferryman spake:

[2] “What kind of a peasant is yon, | that calls o’er the bay?”

Thor spake:

[3] “Ferry me over the sound; | I will feed thee therefor in the morning;
A basket I have on my back, | and food therein, none better;
At leisure I ate, | ere the house I left,
Of herrings and porridge, | so plenty I had.”

The ferryman spake:

[4] “Of thy morning feats art thou proud, | but the future thou knowest not wholly;
Doleful thine home-coming is: | thy mother, me thinks, is dead.”

Thor spake:

[5] “Now hast thou said | what to each must seem
The mightiest grief, | that my mother is dead.”

The ferryman spake:

[6] “Three good dwellings, | methinks, thou hast not;
Barefoot thou standest, | and wearest a beggar’s dress;
Not even hose dost thou have.”

Thor spake:

[7] “Steer thou hither the boat; | the landing here shall I show thee;
But whose the craft | that thou keepest on the shore?”

The ferryman spake:

[8] “Hildolf is he | who bade me have it,
A hero wise; | his home is at Rathsey’s sound.
He bade me no robbers to steer, | nor stealers of steeds,
But worthy men, | and those whom well do I know.
Say now thy name, | if over the sound thou wilt fare.”

Thor spake:

[9] “My name indeed shall I tell, | though in danger I am,
And all my race; | I am Othin’s son,
Meili’s brother, | and Magni’s father,
The strong one of the gods; | with Thor now speech canst thou get.
And now would I know | what name thou hast.”

The ferryman spake:

[10] “Harbarth am I, | and seldom I hide my name.”

Thor spake:

[11] “Why shouldst thou hide thy name, | if quarrel thou hast not?”

Harbarth spake:

[12] “And though I had a quarrel, | from such as thou art
Yet none the less | my life would I guard,
Unless I be doomed to die.”

Thor spake:

[13] “Great trouble, methinks, | would it be to come to thee,
To wade the waters across, | and wet my middle;
Weakling, well shall I pay | thy mocking words,
if across the sound I come.”

Harbarth spake:

[14] “Here shall I stand | and await thee here;
Thou hast found since Hrungnir died | no fiercer man.”

Thor spake:

[15] “Fain art thou to tell | how with Hrungnir I fought,
The haughty giant, | whose head of stone was made;
And yet I felled him, | and stretched him before me.
What, Harbarth, didst thou the while?”

Harbarth spake:

[16] “Five full winters | with Fjolvar was I,
And dwelt in the isle | that is Algrön called;
There could we fight, | and fell the slain,
Much could we seek, | and maids could master.”

Thor spake:

[17] “How won ye success with your women?”

Harbarth spake:

[18] “Lively women we had, | if they wise for us were;
Wise were the women we had, | if they kind for us were;
For ropes of sand | they would seek to wind,
And the bottom to dig | from the deepest dale.
Wiser than all | in counsel I was,
And there I slept | by the sisters seven,
And joy full great | did I get from each.
What, Thor, didst thou the while?”

Thor spake:

[19] “Thjazi I felled, | the giant fierce,
And I hurled the eyes | of Alvaldi’s son
To the heavens hot above;
Of my deeds the mightiest | marks are these,
That all men since can see.
What, Harbarth, didst thou the while?”

Harbarth spoke:

[20] “Much love-craft I wrought | with them who ride by night,
When I stole them by stealth from their husbands;
A giant hard | was Hlebarth, methinks:
His wand he gave me as gift,
And I stole his wits away.”

Thor spake:

[21] “Thou didst repay good gifts with evil mind.”

Harbarth spake:

[22] “The oak must have | what it shaves from another;
In such things each for himself.
What, Thor, didst thou the while?”

Thor spake:

[23] “Eastward I fared, | of the giants I felled
Their ill-working women | who went to the mountain;
And large were the giants’ throng | if all were alive;
No men would there be | in Mithgarth more.
What, Harbarth, didst thou the while?”

Harbarth spake:

[24] “In Valland I was, | and wars I raised,
Princes I angered, | and peace brought never;
The noble who fall | in the fight hath Othin,
And Thor hath the race of the thralls.”

Thor spake:

[25] “Unequal gifts | of men wouldst thou give to the gods,
If might too much thou shouldst have.”

Harbarth spake:

[26] “Thor has might enough, | but never a heart;
For cowardly fear | in a glove wast thou fain to crawl,
And there forgot thou wast Thor;
Afraid there thou wast, | thy fear was such,
To fart or sneeze | lest Fjalar should hear.”

Thor spake:

[27] “Thou womanish Harbarth, | to hell would I smite thee straight,
Could mine arm reach over the sound.”

Harbarth spake:

[28] “Wherefore reach over the sound, | since strife we have none?
What, Thor, didst thou do then?”

Thor spake:

[29] “Eastward I was, | and the river I guarded well,
Where the sons of Svarang | sought me there;
Stones did they hurl; | small joy did they have of winning;
Before me there | to ask for peace did they fare.
What, Harbarth, didst thou the while?”

Harbarth spake:

[30] “Eastward I was, | and spake with a certain one,
I played with the linen-white maid, | and met her by stealth;
I gladdened the gold-decked one, | and she granted me joy.”

Thor spake:

[31] “Full fair was thy woman-finding.”

Harbarth spake:

[32] “Thy help did I need then, Thor, | to hold the white maid fast.”

Thor spake:

[33] “Gladly, had I been there, | my help to thee had been given.”

Harbarth spake:

[34] “I might have trusted thee then, | didst thou not betray thy troth.”

Thor spake:

[35] “No heel-biter am I, in truth, | like an old leather shoe in spring.”

Harbarth spoke:

[36] “What, Thor, didst thou the while?”

Thor spake:

[37] “In Hlesey the brides | of the Berserkers slew I;
Most evil they were, | and all they betrayed.”

Harbarth spake:

[38] “Shame didst thou win, | that women thou slewest, Thor.”

Thor spake:

[39] “She-wolves they were like, | and women but little;
My ship, which well | I had trimmed, did they shake;
With clubs of iron they threatened, | and Thjalfi they drove off.
What, Harbarth, didst thou the while?”

Harbarth spake:

[40] “In the host I was | that hither fared,
The banners to raise, | and the spear to redden.”

Thor spake:

[41] “Wilt thou now say | that hatred thou soughtest to bring us?”

Harbarth spake:

[42] “A ring for thy hand | shall make all right for thee,
As the judge decides | who sets us two at peace.”

Thor spake:

[43] “Where foundest thou | so foul and scornful a speech?
More foul a speech | I never before have heard.”

Harbarth spake:

[44] “I learned it from men, | the men so old,
Who dwell in the hills of home.”

Thor spake:

[45] “A name full good | to heaps of stones thou givest
When thou callest them hills of home.”

Harbarth spake:

[46] “Of such things speak I so.”

Thor spake:

[47] “Ill for thee comes | thy keenness of tongue,
If the water I choose to wade;
Louder, I ween, | than a wolf thou cryest,
If a blow of my hammer thou hast.”

Harbarth spake:

[48] “Sif has a lover at home, | and him shouldst thou meet;
More fitting it were | on him to put forth thy strength.”

Thor spake:

[49] “Thy tongue still makes thee say | what seems most ill to me,
Thou witless man! Thou liest, I ween.”

Harbarth spake:

[50] “Truth do I speak, | but slow on thy way thou art;
Far hadst thou gone | if now in the boat thou hadst fared.”

Thor spake:

[51] “Thou womanish Harbarth! | here hast thou held me too long.”

Harbarth spake:

[52] “I thought not ever | that Asathor would be hindered
By a ferryman thus from faring.”

Thor spake:

[53] “One counsel I bring thee now: | row hither thy boat;
No more of scoffing; | set Magni’s father across.”

Harbarth spake:

[54] “From the sound go hence; | the passage thou hast not.”

Thor spake:

[55] “The way now show me, since thou takest me not o’er the water.”

Harbarth spake:

[56] “To refuse it is little, to fare it is long;
A while to the stock, and a while to the stone;
Then the road to thy left, till Verland thou reachest;
And there shall Fjorgyn her son Thor find,
And the road of her children she shows him to Othin’s realm.”

Thor spake:

[57] “May I come so far in a day?”

Harbarth spake:

[58] “With toil and trouble perchance,
While the sun still shines, or so I think.”

Thor spake:

[59] “Short now shall be our speech, for thou speakest in mockery only;
The passage thou gavest me not I shall pay thee if ever we meet.”

Harbarth spake:

[60] “Get hence where every evil thing shall have thee!”
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